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Black youth unemployment may restrict future earnings

Imara Jones | 2/6/2014, 6 a.m.

Disproportionate school discipline directed at blacks and Latinos is a driving force behind lower education attainment rates for these two groups, further damaging lifelong earning potential.

Though students from these communities make up fewer than 4 out of 10 kids in school, they make up seven out of 10 children “involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement.” As the Advancement Project points out, students who’ve been suspended are up to five times more likely to not finish high school. Given the condition of the labor market, the lack of a high school diploma is simply a non-starter.

The second challenge is the way that higher incarceration rates damage job prospects for youth of color. With 6 out 10 individuals in prison being black or Latino, over 300,000 people of color are released from incarceration each year. Almost all employers perform a background check on job applicants, even those for low-wage positions. Astoundingly, 90 percent of all African-Americans with criminal records are passed over for employment. That’s a rate three times higher than whites with a similar history. Skewed incarceration is another headwind that youth of color face in the job market.

The reason that any of this matters is that youth unemployment means lower incomes and fewer life opportunities for those without work. Since employment between the ages of 16 to 24 is vital to setting the pace for an individual’s future earning power, joblessness experienced by young people has severe consequences. Just six months of unemployment can mean $45,000 in lower wages. It can take up to a decade to make up lost ground. The longer unemployment lasts, the larger the longterm earnings hole grows. Young people aged 20 to 24 will amass $20 billion in lost wages over the next decade. Writ large, this translates into an amount that will be difficult for black and Latino communities, still reeling from the recession, to absorb.

Turning it around

The good news is that youth unemployment is entirely fixable. The most important thing is to jumpstart overall job growth and get the economy functioning normally again.

Consequently raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, lowering the wage gap between men and women, and expanding tax breaks for low-income workers — including those without children — would be great places to start. Together these actions would raise the income of tens of millions and lift millions more out of poverty. A shot in the arm to the economy on such a scale would help push labor to function more normally, allowing older workers to move up the earnings scale, and clearing the way for young people.

But an even more targeted effort to end black and Latino youth unemployment is desperately needed. As Tom Allison, policy analyst at the under-34 advocacy group Young Invincibles puts it, “If the goal is to improve the economy, we have to focus on those who are suffering the most.”

Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, structuring a way for more people of color to attend college, lowering incarceration rates, and ending employment discrimination for non-violent offenders are all essential.

With an entire generation of black and Latino youth hanging in the balance, the country doesn’t have a second to waste.